Review: ‘Okja’ is Netflix’s Prized Pig

As the debate rages on about Netflix original movies and their right to be called movies, the streaming behemoth releases Okja, a wild, wacky and sneakily sweet tale of an unusual friendship.

The movie caused quite a stir at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as it was one of two films from Netflix that premiered in competition. Reports out of Cannes left the lingering question: do Netflix movies have a place in the festival and awards realm?

Okja – which will be available on Netflix June 28th – will also have a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. This will allow it to qualify for any awards consideration and any other year-end toasts. Admittedly, I watched the film home on my laptop but director Bong Joon Ho’s (Snowpiercer) latest movie demands the big screen attention.

The movie opens with the Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announcing the company’s plan to ship genetically engineered pigs off to farmers and collect them back years later for a pageant in New York City. Only one of the giant creatures – which look more like giant hippos with long, floppy ears – can be named the “super pig.” From the very opening, as Swinton’s icy perfectionist Lucy comes into the frame, we know the Mirando Corporation is bad news.

Okja is one of the pigs and now lives on a farm and has become quite attached to Mija (An Seo Hyun). Mija’s carefree sense of adventure and curiosity keep her and Okja busy most days but all of that is interrupted when television host Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows up on the farm to do a segment on Okja before taking her to New York City for the pageant. Mija is fiercely protective of her friend, so she heads to New York City with them, where she is aided by the Animal Liberation Front, who drives around dressed like bank robbers, trying to help animals as peacefully as they can. Paul Dano plays Jay, the leader of the group.

There’s a lot going on throughout Okja and, at times, you would think the movie couldn’t sustain its varying themes and subplots. Ho has essentially created two films here – a tale of friendship and a satire about animal activism. Miraculously, the two blend seamlessly together and creates smooth transitions from one aspect of the story to the next.

Swinton and Gyllenhaal are the big names in the cast but they seem to be having a great time in their showy supporting roles, making plenty of room for this to be young Hyun’s film. She is commanding as Mija, playing a great range of vulnerable but tough, ferociously loyal and protective. This is a real breakout for the young actress.

So, with Okja, the debate of Netflix’s place in the movie world will continue but in the meantime they have given us a film that is unlike anything you have seen. Its startling visuals and big ideas deserves to be seen in theaters but at the very least, it deserves to be seen.

Rating: 4/5